Matthew 6.1-6, 16-18
Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Beware of practising your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.
‘So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
‘And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
‘And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.’
In today’s reading Jesus speaks of the times when we give alms, when we pray, and when we fast. His words are framed within a warning about the attitude we should adopt whenever we engage in these spiritual disciplines. In Jesus’ time, within that Jewish culture, the majority of people gave alms, prayed and fasted on a regular basis: it was part of their everyday lives. However, the familiarity of these practices had led people to develop rituals and routines that demonstrated how much more pious they were than their neighbours … or so they thought. In reality, their self-constructed systems of piety distanced them from God, just as they distanced them from the neighbours they were called to love and serve.
In the modern Church we encounter something similar in the way people have come to describe and to delineate their ‘churchmanship’. The differences between ‘High’ Church and ‘Low’ Church worship is an obvious example of the extremes we have created for ourselves. Then, within these polar opposites there are minute details which create even finer demarcation, and alienation. The insistence on personal preference when it comes to prayer and worship marks many of us out as being just as bad as those who are being criticized by Jesus in today’s reading from the Sermon on the Mount.
Of course, there is something else we need to consider in relation to today’s reading … Jesus says when you give alms, and whenever you pray, and when you fast. These words contain an expectation that generosity, prayer and fasting are central to the way in which we live our lives. But are they? Just as we have created false differences that mark us out as belonging to different branches of the Church, so many of us have side-lined these essential spiritual practices because they get in the way of the way we live out our daily lives.
Today we are being challenged to consider our relationship with God, and how much importance we attach to that relationship. Are we more interested in describing ourselves as ‘Anglo-Catholic’ or ‘Evangelical’ than actually praying and worshipping? Are we so busy living out the demands of our diaries that we set aside the call to be generous with our worldly wealth, to pray and to be abstemious in our habits? Are we really doing all we can to foster and nurture an intimate and personal relationship with our heavenly Father, just as Jesus did when he walked the earth?
The choice really is ours, you know!